The first half of the book of Leviticus describes many different kinds of sacrifices and offerings that the people were to make in Old Testament times. It describes circumstances under which they were to be offered. Who was to offer them. Exactly how it had to be done. And so on.
Here are a few quotations.
“When he realizes his guilt in any of these and confesses the sin he has committed, he shall bring to the LORD as his compensation for the sin that he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin. But if he cannot afford a lamb, then he shall bring to the LORD as his compensation for the sin that he has committed two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering.” (Leviticus 5:5-7)
“But if he cannot afford two turtledoves or two pigeons, then he shall bring as his offering for the sin that he has committed a tenth of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering. He shall put no oil on it and shall put no frankincense on it, for it is a sin offering.” (Leviticus 5:11)
“And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.” (Leviticus 12:8)
“But if he is poor and cannot afford so much, then he shall take one male lamb for a guilt offering to be waved, to make atonement for him, and a tenth of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering, and a log of oil.” (Leviticus 14:21)
Hang on a minute. Does it require two male lambs and one ewe lamb to make atonement for someone with a ritually-defiling skin disease or not? Why ask people to sacrifice 3 lambs if 1 does the job? But if 1 doesn’t do the job, but you need 3, why accept 1 at all?
Could it be because God wanted to teach the people of Israel, and us, something.
- God wants everyone to have access to cleansing and forgiveness. He doesn’t want poverty to be a bar to such important things.
- It’s not free. God wants us to learn that anyone can have forgiveness however much or little we have. The fact that there is no particular price for us to pay does not mean that there is no price to pay.
- We can’t deduce from Leviticus what cleansing and forgiveness actually costs. It may be that 2 male lambs and one ewe lamb is what it actually costs to cleanse someone defiled by their skin-disease. But if God is willing to subsidise those who cannot afford so much, for all we know he is subsidising everyone – including those who can afford the 3 lambs. Indeed that seems highly likely. The price is not less than 3 lambs, but it could be much, much more. The true cost is hidden from us.
- God is willing to pay himself to make sure that we have access to cleansing and forgiveness. There’s a shortfall between what he asks of the Israelites and what it actually costs. That doesn’t come from nowhere. God is willing to dip into his own pocket and provide for us.
The Israelites could learn those lessons, respond obediently by sacrificing as God has asked them to, and then trust that God is really the one who provides for their cleansing. Their sacrifices therefore expressed trust in Christ.
We now know the real cost. The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world had to die. And no bulls or goats could ever achieve this. We do not contribute even one penny to our cleansing and forgiveness. But we still need to learn the lessons of Leviticus. Specifically that:
- It isn’t free.
- It costs far, far more than we think it does.